BBC BLOGS - Newsnight: Susan Watts
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The return of swine flu is early, but not unexpected

Susan Watts | 18:48 UK time, Thursday, 17 September 2009

Don't put away the hand gel... swine flu has returned. It now looks as if we are at the start of the second wave of H1N1 pandemic flu in the UK, earlier than hoped.

The number of cases last week in England is estimated to be just over 5000, compared with around 3000 in the week before. And in Scotland the numbers have doubled in the last week, from around 3300 to just over 6000.

The Chief Medical Officer for England, Sir Liam Donaldson, described the rise as "one of a number of straws in the wind that suggest we might be seeing the start of an upturn".

These straws include a rise in people in hospital with swine flu in England to 143 from 132 in the previous week, a rise in reports to GPs and a handful of outbreaks in schools (two in South Yorkshire, one in Carlisle, one in the North East, and two in London).

This early rise, following the return to school in England two weeks ago, is not unexpected, but it is early.

"We would naturally have hoped for a bit more breathing space", Sir Liam told journalists at his weekly flu update this afternoon.

The early rise steps up the pressure on the national vaccine programme. Sir Liam said he is eager to get this started, to protect the small minority for whom the virus can prove very serious. Swine flu remains a mild disease in most people.

And the good news on the vaccine front is that trials suggest one dose is enough to offer protection. This makes sense of the government's announcement today that it's prepared to donate ten per cent of UK vaccine supply to the developing world. The White House made a similar pledge this afternoon.

This follows barely disguised pleas from the World Health Organisation that well-off countries do more to help countries where access to vaccine could prove vital for millions of people who are already sick, have poor nutrition and limited access to basic health care.

Sir Liam drew attention to rising swine flu numbers elsewhere in the northern hemisphere - notably in Eastern Europe and the USA - which has seen a significant increase in the past few weeks

graph1watts.jpg

graph2awatts.jpg

Sir Liam said a colleague recently returned from the US visited one college campus with 2000 students sick with the virus. This is clearly ringing alarm bells here. The UK might reasonably be expected to follow the US pattern of disease - as it did in the first wave in the Spring. Though the expert view apparently remains that we may not see a second peak in UK cases before mid October.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    SEASON OF MELLOW FRUITS AND STIRRED POPULATIONS

    Millions back from holiday - millions returned to school! With perturbation of such magnitude, in the UK 'test area', I would throw out all my data and start again. Does the rest of the world do holidays, timed much as we do?

  • Comment number 2.

    All summer we have been advising our clients that to dismiss swine flu as dead and buried was wrong and that just because the media was not reporting on the continuing death toll did not mean that this nasty virus was beaten. Personally I believe that the schools should be monitored more closely as this seems to be the primary source of contamination. Shut the schools? - drastic action that should have been discussed in more detail rather than a swift 'NO' from Ed Balls

  • Comment number 3.

    One of the worst places to pick up bugs are on short haul flights, the air is circulated around the cabin many times and if the people I tend to sit next to are any guide a space suit would be a safe option.....

  • Comment number 4.

    Very interesting that Ms. Watts chose the chart she did from the Centers (plural) for Disease Control and Prevention. "Consultations" are exactly that. The chart for actual diagnoses, from the same webpage, is here:

    http://www.cdc.gov/flu/weekly/weeklyarchives2008-2009/EIP33.htm

    At best there's a barely discernible uptick. We are thus seeing not a surge in swine flu but rather swine flu panic, which no doubt will be further encouraged by Susan Watts' misleading blog. That's how panic works.

    For world figures, consult these charts:

    http://flutracker.rhizalabs.com/

    Fewer flu cases and deaths now than two weeks ago.

    Finally, data from all over the world, and most recently from Australia and New Zealand where their flu seasons are winding down, show swine flu to be far milder than seasonal flu. In New York City swine flu killed a fraction of the people that would have died from the same number of seasonal flu infections.

    Indeed, in both New Zealand and Australia, because swine flu is so much milder and because it's displacing seasonal flu, it actually appears to be lowering the overall death rate compared to previous years.

    In other words, far from something dreadful it appears swine flu is something of a blessing. Mark these words: The UK and the US are in for mild flu seasons.

  • Comment number 5.

    I think Mike Fumento has made a good point here. Strangely enough, even the CBC is now making this point too - see http://www.cbc.ca/whitecoat/

 

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